December 3, 1957
When considering the important role of women in Senate history, one name frequently appears—Margaret Chase Smith. Why is Smith such a popular topic? This seemingly fearless woman from Maine certainly established an important legacy, but her prominence in Senate history also reflects the statistical reality of women in elective office. Since 1789, nearly 2,000 men have served in the U.S. Senate. Since 1789, the total number of women senators is just 46, and 20 of them are serving right now. Of the 26 former female senators, only half served a full term or more. Fortunately, Margaret Chase Smith continues to be a wonderful source of great stories. Here is one more: "Mach-buster Maggie: The Supersonic Senator from Maine."
Throughout her 32-year congressional career, Smith had a strong interest in the military. Becoming a representative in 1940, she quickly became a vocal advocate for military preparedness. As a member of the House Naval Affairs Committee, she toured extensively through the Pacific theater of war. In the Senate, she became ranking member of the Armed Services Committee. She also served as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve from 1950 to 1958. In each of these positions, Smith championed in particular the role of women in the military. Not surprisingly, this Cold War-era senator also became a keen supporter of the space program.
In 1957, at the request of Air Force Secretary James Douglas, Senator Smith donned military uniform for a month-long active tour of duty to investigate problems related to recruitment and retention of military personnel. Smith’s military travels took her to Colorado, Nebraska, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the Panama Canal. They also landed her in Los Angeles, where the pioneering senator set yet another record.
On December 3, 1957, following a day of special training, the 60-year-old Smith suited up in flight gear, donned a parachute and oxygen mask, and climbed into an F-100 Super Sabre Jet piloted by Air Force Major Clyde Good. Reaching speeds of nearly 1,000 miles per hour, Smith became the first women in Congress to break the sound barrier.
“Supersonic flight and barrel rolls at 40,000 feet disturbed the woman Senator’s composure not one whit,” commented an observer. “It was wonderful,” Smith exclaimed. “I enjoyed the barrel rolls, and even the G-pressure didn’t bother me.” She did have one concern, she later confessed. Major Good warned her not to touch a particular button on her right. “Why?” she asked. That’s the ejection button, he explained. For the rest of the flight, Smith kept her right armed tightly pinned by her left to avoid accidentally pushing that button. Smith’s 30-minute flight earned her official membership in the “Mach Busters Club,” which in 1957 still had very few members.